Thursday, September 4, 2008

what i didn't know...

“Just ignore it,” I said, referencing the manhattan-sized cockroach scurrying across the wall of my classroom, past the “BIG GOALS” poster and rapidly approaching my “Class Laws” bulletin board. And miraculously – they do – a testament to the regularity of the sightings of these monstrous insects.

It’s day 2, and I don’t know how to use the phone in my classroom, which I only discovered that I had when I heard a mysterious ringing emitting from a previously unnoticed box on the wall earlier in the day. I definitely don’t know how to call the janitor, and I have a bad feeling that the school protocol with regards to cockroaches and other insects would involve me smashing it under my business casual shoes. Luckily, I went to a middle school in which it wasn’t rare to encounter a roach, and there I learned, among other important life lessons, that smashing a roach is not the answer – its eggs, which it carries under its body, just become embedded in your shoes, subsequently traveling with you to wherever you may go. Urban legend or not, it’s no wonder these buggers are rumored to be able to survive a nuclear winter.

There are other important protocols that have not been communicated with me. When a father of a student asked me about the dress code on day one, I took a quick inventory of the school yard, and noting that only ¼ of the students were wearing light blue shirts, I assured him in my most confident, “I am a veteran, not a new, inexperienced, completely clueless teacher” voice, that there was no dress code. 2 minutes later, after the principal stopped by my class to remind the kids that they must dress in their baby blue shirts the next day, I whisper in Hector’s ear to tell his father that they suddenly changed the policy, and there IS a dress code.

Despite my monumental knowledge gap with regards to school policies, there are other things which people have made a point of telling me. I am told of the “lesbian epidemic” sweeping through the eighth grade. All of the girls in one class last year decided to become lesbians. They are in eighth grade now, and it’s sweeping like wildfire. I was also told about the teacher who had my room last year, who killed herself by jumping off of a bridge. I learn of this when I ask the assistant principal where I can get keys to my classroom, and he jokes that I can find them “at the bottom of the Bronx river”. Ouch. Apparently she lost her job after forgetting a child on a field trip to Rockefeller Center, and subsequently jumped.

I mess up the attendance sheets in a new way every day, arguing with the woman who tells me how important it is that if it was so important, perhaps I should have been taught. On day three, I put myself between two overgrown, overweight boys, dripping with sweat from due to the broken air conditioners and too much anger and adrenaline. I still don't know how to call security. One boy , Carlos, informs me that he is fighting with the other because “Nobody runs him!” Apparently, Timothy had mistakenly tried to “run” Carlos. In my most assertive and demeaning voice, I tell Carlos just how much he appears to have been “run”. “If you run yourself than you don’t let things like this bother you, you don’t end up in trouble and missing lunch to have a talk with me! You responding to him is exactly what it looks like when you let someone else 'run' you!” I have a strong suspicion that my logic is lost on him…

I teach 3 sixth grade classes and 3 seventh grade classes. My homeroom is 6th grade, and they are heaven – adorable, smart, eager – everything that you picture your students being like in your dreams. I had them first. Then came the rest of my classes, which one after another woke me up from my fantasy-land, and pounded me into reality. For the first two days, I was convinced that 6th grade was sweet and innocent, and somehow in seventh grade they became jaded and mean. Then I met the other two 6th grade classes (until today I had only known 603). 601 and 602 roared into my room and stomped my theory about the 6th grade right into the ground.

The management is difficult and exhausting – asserting yourself again and again, reminding them how important you are. We are saddled with expectations and pride, gifts from TFA, which again and again reminded us that we were performing a great service, and providing these children with a necessary resource that they would otherwise lack. We are giving them a chance at a great future – or so we are told – and we enter the classrooms feeling very noble. And yet, it isn’t the same as providing water to those who are thirsty, or feeding people who are starving. We aren’t giving warmth to those who are freezing, or providing any other amenity which would give the recipient a sense of immediate gratification. Rather, an education takes a long time to seem worthwhile. In fact, it’s only in coming into this school, planning a lesson and realizing just how many things I take for granted that I know - How to take notes, how to read a textbook, or really, how to read, in general. Things that you don’t remember being taught, at one point you must have been. How do you stand in a straight line? How do you work in a group? How do you hand in papers and sit properly in your desk and show the teacher that you are listening? What type of government do we have? What is an economy? The students - the recipients of this great gift we are bestowing upon them - like all other students in the world, don't recognize that the knowledge is a necessity. When I tell them that knowing social studies is not only necessary in order to pass the 7th grade, but also in order to be informed citizens, they seem a bit confused. "You don't want to look ignorant, not understanding the way that this country works, or how it came to be this way!" I exclaim in frustration. Ah - "Ignorant" - the magic word! Suddenly they get it. Unlike feeding the starving or housing the homeless, with teaching I have to remind myself every period that what I'm doing matters, because to the students it is as though I am forcing nutrients down their throats, trying to avoid having my hand bitten off.

I’ve gotten off of my carefully charted course several times to correct serious misconceptions.
Me: What does it mean that we live in a democracy? (hoping to hear some word that at least resembles “voting”)
(dead silence)
Me: We have an election coming up, don’t we?
(a couple of nods)
Me: Who are the candidates?
Class members: Um…BARACK OBAMA!...and….Hillary Clinton….and John McCain….and Guiliani….and –
Me: woah – we only have two candidates now!
Class: Oooooooh yea. – someone asks “why did Hillary Clinton drop out?”
Helpful student: because she became vice president
Another helpful students: but she took out a hit on Barack Obama’s life – she just did it in code so she couldn’t get in trouble.
Student: Miss – I have a question – why are people upset that John McCain is having a baby?
(now I realize I will need to get off track to ensure that they don’t continue through their lives thinking these things)

603 – my superstars, rockstars, little sparks of light in my day, are ahead of the other classes, and handed in their “Where I’m from” poems – an assignment that was supposed to show their history, so that we could look to see perspectives and bias’ that accompany individual histories. (inevitably, this discussion, led by me, took the shape of talking about which football teams you support, and how you would look at last years superbowl depending on which team you were supporting. For all of you Giants fans out there, the Patriots fans in 603 are quite certain that they let you win because they had enough rings already. Needless to say, they didn’t agree with my perspective that the season didn’t matter because the Steelers fell short…)

Some of my favorite poems:

“I am from close up
From hugging and sharing
(sometimes too much)
I’m from the high and tall
Where, I could look across to the island.

I am from the doing the right things
From the one father
Who wasn’t mine
But gave me love
And now
He’s gone

I am a part
Of them who will love
And be

“I come from two,
from a beautiful Spanish land,
where the water is blue
to a Italian land
where a tower leans

from rice and beans
to spaghetti and meatballs.
From two different languages
That are still the same.

From mother and father
That were two
But now are one.”

This class is my only class that all behaves, whose eyes glow when I am giving them new information, and who look ready to fall out of their seats in their eagerness to be called on. Today I collected their parent surveys, and to me it seemed clear why the students in this class were so invested in their success. One after another, a parent promised me that if I gave their students the attention that they deserved, they would be the best in the class. They tell me how gifted their student is, warning me not to discount them because they are shy, or too talkative. They listed their goals for their children: “self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-love, and independence.” So there are families behind these faces, who bought them those shiny new white tennis shoes, and took them to get their hair braided and new weave put in.

The kids are smart – but the degree to which they are uneducated is shocking. But it gives me hope – that what they say is actually true. They are capable of achieving, they just have to be given the attention and the opportunity - things that I have always taken for granted. But the other thing that is interesting, is that never for a moment would I feel sorry for these kids. They are lacking in opportunity, but they are not the type to be pitied. Going in with an attitude like that is condescending, and based on entirely false presumptions. They don’t have a lot, and yet they are so proud of what they do have – it’s all that they know. And as one of my students told me today, “some kids, they are very spoiled and they have everything, but they make bad choices because they get lazy and don’t think that they have to work hard, so they do the wrong things even though they are rich.” “No one in here would make that mistake, would they?” I ask. “NO! No Way! We aren’t spoiled! We know we have to make smart choices!” comes the resounding response. And I am smiling when I remind them to “Raise your hands!”


  1. The poems were beautiful. And thank you for sharing this story - so interesting - I loved reading it. Keep it up!

  2. oh the knowledge one gains from public school :)
    it sounds like it's crazy and wonderful - I can't wait to hear more!